Roger Cohen: Real Wars and the U.S. Culture

The culture-war surge in the U.S election campaign has come at the expense of meaningful debate about the real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s dangerous because they stand at critical junctures.

We’ve had Sarah Palin at the Republican National Convention setting a new low for foreign policy with her attempt to mock Barack Obama’s approach to international terrorists: “He’s worried that someone won’t read them their rights.”

I’m sorry, Ms. Palin, but out there in Alaska, between moose shoots, did you hear about Bagram, Abu Ghraib, renditions, waterboarding, Guantánamo and the rest?

John McCain knows what happens when those rights disappear. He described his Vietnamese nightmare the next night: “They worked me over harder than they ever had before. For a long time. And they broke me.”

A man remembers getting broken: that’s why McCain fought the use of torture by the Bush administration. His condoning of those words from his vice-presidential candidate is appalling. Foreign policy be damned if you can score a God-fearing-macho-versus-liberal-constitutionalist point.

But the bloody wars, seven years after 9/11, have not paused for this sterile U.S. cultural battle. With some 180,000 troops in the two theaters, U.S. reserve capacity is stretched to the limit — something Iran knows when it keeps the centrifuges turning and Russia knows when it grabs Georgia.

In Afghanistan, a Taliban-led insurgency is growing in reach and effectiveness. There’s talk of a mini-surge in U.S. troops there — now about 34,000 — to counter the threat, but little serious reflection on what precise end perhaps 12,000 additional forces would serve. Until that’s clarified, I’m against the mini-surge.

France, which just mini-surged in Afghanistan, is now embroiled in an agonizing debate over the slaying of 10 soldiers, mostly paratroopers, east of Kabul on Aug. 18. At least one had his throat slit. Photos in Paris Match of Taliban forces with uniforms of the Frenchmen have enflamed the national mood.

Hervé Morin, the Defense Minister, has called for “national unity” in fighting a threat “from the Middle Ages.” But polls suggest a majority of the French favor withdrawal. A furor is building over suggestions the paratroopers were abandoned.

These French rumblings are a reminder that the NATO coalition in Afghanistan is fragile and that sending more forces is no remedy in itself.

Obama has been right to say Iraq exacted a price on the Afghan campaign — something McCain airily denies. But his calls to send “at least two additional combat brigades” to Afghanistan and his promise in Denver to “finish the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan” are rash.

After 30 years of war, the Afghan struggle won’t be finished for another 30. It’s a weak country, sandwiched between Iran and Pakistan, two far stronger ones that do not wish it well. The Afghan-Pakistani border cannot be sealed, although it can be better policed; the jihadi traffic across it will continue.

None of this means the United States is condemned to having tens of thousands of troops there for decades — although I’d say that’s more likely than victory in four years.

On the day the French were attacked, a large American military base — Camp Salerno in eastern Khost province — came under sustained Taliban assault. I spoke to a U.S. official who’s just ended an 18-month assignment in Khost.

He sees the exclusive focus on more troops as wrong-headed. The priority must be “an Afghan surge.” Get the Afghan national army to 120,000 troops as a priority, from about half that level today. If more U.S. troops do go, training Afghans should be their first task. Only Afghans can win this.

Pour money into Afghan army salaries (now about $100 a month). Keep buying loyalty with US cash in the provinces, where it counts. Make a big push on human capital — “engineering minds is becoming far more important these days than engineering more roads.” If the best brains leave, the country’s lost.

Rethink policy toward schools. Getting madrassahs registered with the government — and so gaining some control over curricula — is smarter than stigmatizing them and pushing students over the border into Waziri zealotry. Get serious about the national reconciliation program, designed to bring ex-Taliban moderates into politics. Focus on Pakistan.

Absent such cornerstones of a strategy — and absent realistic expectations — surging in Afghanistan is a mistake.

As for Iraq, gains are real but fragile. I don’t see how Obama’s “responsible” withdrawal squares with his 16-month time frame for it. If we don’t want Sunni Iraq to remarry Al Qaeda — and that’s a paramount strategic aim — we’re going to have to play buffer against the dominant Shia for several years. That won’t require the current 146,000 troops, but will require many tens of thousands through the next presidency.

Two intractable wars should preclude the culture war McCain has just so shamelessly embraced. He loves the word “fight.” So fight on the issues — and let the people decide.

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